10 Unwritten Rules of Maternity Leave for Career Women

What to know before going on maternity leave

Last month’s announcement of Marissa Mayer as the new CEO of Yahoo set the blogosphere on fire.  Not only did Mayer join the elite (and very rare) ranks of women CEOs, she is also the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the first pregnant woman to assume the helm of a major corporation. Bloggers weighed in immediately. Some hailed Mayer as a role model for working women. Others wondered how she would juggle a new baby while turning around a troubled company.  When asked about her maternity leave plans Mayer responded that she would take a few weeks off to have the baby and work throughout that time. In other words, she planned to pause long enough to give birth before resuming her duties as CEO.

While I was thrilled by Mayer’s appointment, as a working mom I was also initially somewhat disappointed that she planned to take such a short maternity leave. My first thought? What message does this send to other women working for Yahoo who become pregnant? Will women ever be able to advance at the executive levels without sacrificing their roles as mothers? As a first-time mother, does Mayer have any idea what she is in for? Let’s see if  she can have it all.

You could say I had a Sanctimommy moment.

Then I remembered my own maternity leave, now almost three years ago, and my mixed feelings of excitement about welcoming my new baby and anxiety about all of the responsibilities I’d be leaving at work during my three-month absence. So much was going on at work and I wondered how I could possibly keep it all going. It was hard for me to conceive being gone for three days let alone three months.

I also remembered hard-working women like my sister-in-law, a corrections officer, who had to bottle train my niece almost immediately so she could go back to work six weeks after giving birth. I remember that her story is more the norm than we’d like to admit.

When I became pregnant I scoured websites looking for advice on maternity leave.

What I encountered were lots of explanations about the FamilyMedical Leave Act but no real advice about how to design a maternity leave that allowed me to balance new motherhood and manage my career.

I soon realized there were two types of maternity leave policies: those that we women were legally entitled to through FMLA and the unofficial policies laid out by the corporate cultures we work in.

I am fortunate to work for a very family-friendly organization and have a supportive boss. But I  know many women who work in organizations where maternity leave means being consigned to the Mommy Track. It’s one of the reasons I left the PR agency world six years ago. During my years working for two large global PR firms, I noticed that I almost never saw a pregnant managing director or senior vice-president and that most of the senior executives were either men or childless women.

That was one of many clues I was in the wrong work environment for me.

In the last few years, I’ve talked to and coached many pregnant career women. Based on their and my own experience, I’ve distilled these unwritten rules of  maternity leave:

1. Don’t announce your pregnancy too early.
For practical reasons it’s good to wait until at least the end of your first trimester to announce your pregnancy when chances of miscarriage go down, but there is another good reason to wait. In some competitive office environments, share your pregnancy too early and you might find yourself left out of plum assignments; colleagues mentally begin to write you off for certain projects because they don’t think you’ll be around to see them through. So while you may be bursting to share your good news, hold out for as long as you can.

2. Understand your legal rights.
It’s hard to believe but there are still stories of women being fired while out on maternity leave. Do your own research to understand FMLA before meeting with your HR department. In most states you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave (Note: If you work for a small business with fewer than 50 employees, your employer is not legally required to offer paid time off for maternity leave) If you decide to do a full three months, often you must use accrued vacation time along with short-term disability. If you don’t have enough vacation time or coverage through short-term disability, you may find your salary reduced for the time you are out. In short, know your rights.

3. Have a plan.
When I got pregnant, I was clueless about creating a written maternity plan. It wasn’t until a wonderful colleague pulled me aside and asked me about my plan, did I think about it seriously. What kind of plan you ask? Who will stand in for you during your absence? What decisions can and can’t be made without you? If  you are out during your annual planning period, will you participate and to what extent? What is the status and budget of your current projects? What key milestones are coming up?  You should clearly outline these and other issues in your plan so that colleagues can easily navigate during your absence.

4. Communicate your intentions to return to work.
Your boss and your colleagues will wonder if you plan to return to work. Now anyone who knows me, knows I’d make a lousy SAHM but that didn’t stop people from wondering if I was planning on returning to work. There was enough buzz about this that I made it very clear I was coming back and to call off the vultures looking to pillage my office in my absence. The lesson? Don’t assume people know your intentions. If you are returning to work, let people know.

5. Don’t check out. Be passively present.
The reality is that if you have a job with significant responsibility, it’s very hard to go completely dark.  My advice? Selectively check in. Check your email a couple of times a week and let people know they can call you for critical issues.  Most people are not going to abuse this privlege.When I was out on maternity leave I had a standing weekly one-hour catch up meeting with the director who was filling in for me. He did a fabulous job and I felt connected without feeling like I was working.  I also made myself available by phone to my staff to answer questions when the need arose. This happened very rarely and when it did, I was glad they called because they were important issues.
6. Get back into fighting shape.
No, I’m not suggesting you go on some ridiculous crash diet to get your pre-baby body back. Leave that to the celebrities. The reality is between sleep-deprivation and breast-feeding,  most new moms barely have enough energy to get out of pajamas by noon let alone start seriously working out. I did find however that starting to walk after I was cleared by my doctor to exercise did wonders for my mental clarity and sense of self. I gained 45 pounds when I was pregnant and the fact that none of my work clothes fit two months after giving birth was  downright depressing. Joining Weight Watchers (which has a great plan for nursing mothers) and starting a mild exercise routine helped me slowly get my old body back and my self esteem.
7. Figure out your re-entry plan.
What’s the worst part of maternity leave? When it ends and you have to leave your precious baby in the care of another caregiver. When I went back to work and left D2 with his new nanny, it tore my heart to shreds. I cried every day for the first month back at work. Luckily, the pain of re-entry was made slightly more bearable because of the flexible schedule I arranged with my boss. I worked from home one day a week (on the advice of my lactation consultant I chose Wednesday)which also allowed me to keep my milk supply going by giving me a nursing day during the weekday.  Rememer, how you decide to return to work is as important as how you will manage your absence.
8. Develop your support network.
Help is a new mom’s best friend. I would have never survived those early months of new motherhood without my mother-in-law who moved in with us for six months. She taught me everything I know about caring for an infant and I remain forever grateful to her. No relatives nearby? Think about hiring a housekeeper and using a meal service like Dream Dinners.  Accept any and all help because you will need it. Let friends come over and watch the baby even if it’s just to let you sleep for a few hours or go and get your hair done.


9. Expect the unexpected.
Never in a million years did I expect to have a C-section but after more than 30 hours of labor, that is exactly what happened when my labor failed to progress. My recovery was long and I had far less mobility in the early weeks after giving birth that I would have ever guessed. I gave birth in mid-November and had planned to attend my company’s December board meeting for a couple of days.  Recovery from the surgery was brutal and the only thing I could do for a month was lie on a couch, nurse and watch back episodes of Mad Men.  The moral here? Expect the unexpected and be ready to roll with it.

10. Figure out your childcare before the baby arrives.
One of the biggest mistakes I made was not figuring out my childcare before D2 was born. It wasn’t an intentional oversight. With my hectic work schedule and finishing up my MBA, I barely had time to breathe let alone figure out who would watch my son when I returned to work. Big mistake. I ended up spending the last part of my maternity leave interviewing nannies. I was a frantic mess and in retrospect probably scared off a few good  candidates with my new mom frazzle.  If I had to do it over again, I would have had my childcare figured out during my last trimester. If you are trying to get  your sprout into a popular daycare, you may find that you’ll need to get on a waiting list even before your baby is born. So don’t put it off. You’ll thank me later.

Despite the C-section and the normal new-parent curveballs,  I ended up having a wonderful maternity leave. My team did an amazing job while I was away which allowed me to focus primarily on my baby even though I lurked on email a bit and took the odd call or planning meeting.

It’s a shame  in the US we don’t have better policies that allow new mothers (and dads) to spend more time with their newborns. I feel jealous of my European collegues who often get up to a year or more of paid family leave. We are a long way culturally and policy-wise from such a change. On the positive side, I see more employers recognizing that a generous family leave policy is an excellent tool for retaining top employees and cultivating more women in senior management positions. It’s a good sign.

What I know now for sure is that  maternity leave is a sacred time. It’s critical bonding time with your baby that you can’t get back.  With some advance planning, good communication with your colleagues and a willingness to be flexible, I think it’s possible to take this crucial time while still managing the demands of your job. So don’t cheat yourself or your baby. Get creative and make it happen.

Now it’s your turn. What do you know now about maternity leave that you wish you had learned before you gave birth? What advice do you have for new moms? If you are expecting, what worries you about your maternity leave? I want to hear from you. Let’s talk.

Showing 10 comments
  • Jessica

    Hey Boss Mom, great piece. I agree with everything you’ve said. The only point I’d add is that knowing whether you will want to go back to work after you’ve had the baby is a very difficult thing. I’ve had extremely career-focused friends who gave it all up after the baby came (or at least changed their work lives dramatically), and others, for whom I’d have thought work was not a priorty, say that they’d go crazy if they stayed home all day. It’s really hard to know how you’re going to feel until after you’ve actually had the baby. So I’d say don’t make any promises before the baby comes, although you can say “I fully intend to come back” if that’s the truth. I know this isn’t helpful to making colleagues less nervous, but it’s a life-altering moment, and you might wish you hadn’t made promises you no longer want to keep.

    • bossmomonline

      Jessica – you make such good point. It’s cliche to say that a baby changes everything but it really does! I too know women who decided to “power down” after having a baby – though before giving birth they no plans to do so. Some of them quit completely while others went half-time or semi-half time. So there is a lot of wisdom in what you say. Another point that I didn’t make but want to underscore is leaving oneself enough room for options. The more talented and valuable you are to your organization, the more room you have to negotiate a situation that’s right for you. I think we as women don’t negotiate enough to get what we need and think in terms of all or nothing. If a woman is on the fence about going back to work, she could say something like “My plan right now is to return to work” if asked. The reality though is life circumstances cause us to change our minds all of the time and we have to do what is best for our families.

  • jabu

    great piece Portia!

  • Yum Yucky

    #9 sticks out to me about the unexpected. It was the blizzard of ’96, and just two weeks prior, I had my very first c-section. My job was short-staffed due to the blizzard. They had the nerve to ask me to come into work (no way!). The worst thing is having to work for high level women managers who have never had children. They just don’t understand sometimes. Good thing I no longer work there.

    • bossmomonline

      Josie, I couldn’t agree more. I think c-sections in particular throw women for a loop. I remember asking my doctor why I was still feeling so bad (after two weeks) and he reminded me that a c-section is major abdominal surgery! Duh. On the childless female boss point, this is a big issue and one that I get lot of private emails about. Women bosses (especially those who are unmarried and/or childless) get a bad rap and you’ve put your finger on one reason. I think this will be the topic of an upcoming blog post. Thanks for the idea!

      • Tanya

        I’m few weeks into my maternity leave. Been helping my colleagues by working from home- full day quite often except when I eat my quick meals or feed my baby. Colleagues are asking for me to log in and work from home more and more often. Team manager wants to request that I cut short my maternity leave and “spread out” the leave. But I haven’t even spend enough time with my little one and yet to establish good milk flow as my baby spent the first 4 weeks in NICU. And yes, teammates are childless. Manager is unmarried lady!!

        • Boss Mom

          Tanya, I’m so sorry you don’t have a very understanding boss — or co-workers. The reality is that you are legally supposed to NOT work during your FMLA leave. Many employers (especially those who haven’t had employees who needed to take leave) don’t understand FMLA. If you need some advice on how dealing with your colleagues, please feel free to email me directly and I’ll be happy to help.

    • Midori

      It’s so true that non-moms have a hard time understanding why you’re not up and running 2 weeks after a birth. I didn’t either, until I tried it. Even the most family-friendly boss or co-workers may subconsciously think of childbirth like the flu–24 hours and then you should be over it! Nevermind the physical trauma, sleep deprivation, and rampant hormones you can’t understand until you’ve been there!

  • Blair

    I know this is several years late, but I’m trying to get up to speed on maternity leave policy and FMLA rules. You said that most states require 8 weeks of paid maternity leave, but I am not finding that to be the case. Can you elaborate or help me understand? I am likely missing something here.


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